What Is Socially Responsible Magic?

Social Responsibility

I’m a magical experimenter. To me, experimentation with magic isn’t just developing new techniques or finding ways to connect magic to cultural studies or neuroscience (though those are fascinating subjects in themselves). Experimentation with magic also explores the role of magic in out society, and asks how magic stays relevant with the changing times. To that end, one of the facets of magic I’m interested in is how magic is used in a socially responsible manner for the good of society, or at least for the good of the communities that believe in and integrate magic into their spiritual and religious practices performatively.

Lately I’ve been thinking about so-called high magic and low magic, or what is also known as theurgy and thaumaturgy. Theurgy is considered high magic, magic done to commune with the divine, work with the spirit world and mediate those spiritual forces into this world. Thaumaturgy is considered low magic, practical magic, magic done to achieve specific results and typically done to benefit the magician in a material way. With each type of magic, I’ve been thinking about some questions and in this blog I hope to explore those questions at some length, not only in this entry, but future entries as well.

So what is socially responsible magic? Socially responsible magic is magic done to actively contribute to a community’s well being, to the benefit of all the people in the community, as opposed to the benefit of one or a few people. At the same time, such magic necessarily must have some type of measurable outcome, as opposed to merely being a symbolic gesture on the part of the community. What this means is that the magical work must be more than a feel-good solution. Socially responsible magic is magic done to change the community or world in a way that actually has an effect. Those are tough criteria to meet, and I don’t know that a lot of magical work really meets that criteria.

For example, a friend and I recently discussed the following scenario. An oil rig has a broken pipe that starts spilling oil into the ocean. A Pagan group decides to do a ritual with the purpose being to use magic to “fix” the broken pipe. The question that arises is: Has the magic they’ve done really contributed to fixing that broken pipe? If so, how? And if there is no way to determine whether the magic has practically aided in the resolution of fixing that broken pipe, what then has the magic accomplished? Has it made the people in that ritual feel like they’ve done something about the situation (in other words is it a feel-good solution)? And final question here: How have those people contributed in other ways to resolving that issue, either financially or through some type of volunteer work? How are they taking the spiritual values from the ritual and embodying those values in their own relationships with nature?

These were questions my friend and I came up with, and we didn’t have easy answers. I don’t think there are easy answers to such questions, but I also think we need to ask such questions, when it comes to purportedly choosing to do spiritual practices for the benefit of nature, community, etc. I ask those questions, not to disprove the efficacy of magic, being a magician myself, but rather because I want to improve the efficacy of magic, while also examining how magic can contribute to society.

This brings me to a related subject, namely practical magic and why it is performed. Typically practical magic is done when you have a problem in your life that you want to fix, or when you want to manifest a specific result into your life. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of practical magic acts are done for the benefit of the magician as opposed to the benefit of other people or the benefit of the community. While there is nothing wrong with doing practical magic to solve a problem or make your life a bit easier, I think it’s worthwhile to explore how practical magic could be done for the benefit of other people, or for the benefit of the community.

Beyond all of that though, I want to explore what it means to be a responsible member of society… not just Pagan society, but mainstream society. As someone who is a business owner and participates in mainstream organizations such as chambers of commerce and related business associations, I find it fascinating to see how those organizations focus on contributing to the overall communities they are apart of. In turn, this has caused me to look at my role as a Pagan and how I represent Paganism in the mainstream communities I interact in, as well as how I can take some of what I’ve learned in those organizations back into the Pagan community and apply it in a way that is beneficial to that community.

The questions I’ve asked don’t have easy answers (at least they haven’t for me). But I’m looking forward to sharing this journey with you and hearing some of your thoughts and perspectives on this topic, as we explore them together in future entries in this blog.

Socially Responsible Magic is published on alternate Wednesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Taylor Ellwood

Taylor Ellwood is the author of Manifesting Wealth, Magical Identity and 12 other books, as well as being the managing Non-Fiction editor of Immanion Press. Taylor has a background in both Eastern and Western Magical practices, as well as being an experimenter with magic. When Taylor isn't working on his latest magical project, he is a business coach, who helps businesses grow, as well as an avid gamer and exerciser. For more information please visit Magical Experiments.

  • http://www.sablearadia.com/ Sable Aradia

    I’ll be following your column with interest. Two of us straddling the W&P and Patheos line now! I read you over there too. Welcome aboard!

    • TaylorEllwood

      Thank you! I’m happy to be on here as well as on Pagan Square.

  • Alyxander M Folmer

    I always heard High and Low magic in the opposite order. High magic was an act of inflicting ones will on the world, in a very clinical, testable, and repeatable way. Low magic was less focused and more emotional, relying on religious ritual. Folk Magic.
    Then again, I learned that from a hermetecist, show my information may be a little biased… LoL

    • TaylorEllwood

      Perhaps a bit biased. I wouldn’t agree with those definitions, but different people will have different understandings of what something means.

  • http://northernrunesradio.com Daniel

    Socially responsible–I personally believe that is the wrong question for a magician to ask. “What is my true will?” meaning the higher aspect of consciousness of which I am a part and in line with is. Whether theurgy or thamaturgy, regardless of tradition, one’s authority to practice magic successfully stems from that union. Any apparent success otherwise will snap back on the person whether it was perceived by the “ego consciousness” as “good” or “evil” (which are relative terms as there is no such think as black or white magic–there is only the heart of the practitioner). Without this connection in consciousness in what way will you know if a certain circumstance (personal or global) is not the will of the multiverse? Perceptions by the ego consciousness cannot be relied upon when it comes to magic, as it can easily be skewed by emotional states–rather than the stillness of intuitive connection. As an adept in Hermeticism in both Theurgy and Thamaturgy, and of tribal magic involving the sorcery of the Runes over what seems as a lifetime (28 years) I am not speaking out of my hat here lol. The magician must work on his/her own connection to higher consciousness first, before they can be in a position to know the “socially responsible” action to take. People can “unravel” themselves to the point of insanity otherwise–especially if they have some talent–or slip into truly demonical domination however your tradition may name such. One can be as intoxicated with the emotional responses of the mind to astral energies as with alcohol–both strip the practitioner of their personal sovereignty and make them slaves to whatever they “got in touch with”.

    Thought I would reply to this one, sorry for its length. Its just very important.

    • TaylorEllwood

      Thanks for sharing. I’ll admit I find the question of what True will is to be problematic, especially as it’s wrapped up in Thelema, which is only one current among many magical currents. That said, I might rephrase the question and ask: “What is my True Calling?” which I thinks speaks in a similar manner to what you are addressing in your comment.

      I also find the word consciousness problematic, because it doesn’t begin to speak what that connection is. Consciousness is a psychological term that typically addresses the egoic sense of self and its interactions with everyday life. I’d focus in on identity instead, and examine this connection from an ontological perspective, which situates social responsibility in context to the connection a person feels with the multiverse. Knowing your identity isn’t merely knowing your self, sense the self of self is based on the ego, but rather is based on understanding how who/what you is shaped by historical, cultural, genetic, familial, spiritual aspects of identity, as well as how you take that and apply it with knowing awareness to your everyday life, and circumstances, as well as ow you apply it to the world around you in a meaningful way.

      • http://northernrunesradio.com Daniel

        There is a vast difference between self-consciousness, and consciousness itself. I would refer you to the basics of “The Seven Hermetic principles” where consciousness in its most “raw” form is discussed–even the first one “The Universe IS mind” we are thoughts within that mind, and hence our very existence (and that of the multiverse itself) is an illusion and there is no such thing as “existence” in an objectified manner at least not one that is not based purely upon a perception. This then puts forth the problem of circular reasoning. (i.e. a word cannot be used in its own definition-hence how can one part of an illusion define another? Neither is correct as it is not possible to reason one’s way outside of the illusion) There is no way to quantify this connection with the higher aspect with words written or spoken–as it is not in the realm of intellect. You either have it or you don’t, and those that have it cannot do more than state the need for it. Cultural, genetic and familial factors are purely egoic, as is the sense of “self”. Any attempt to explain further is tainted by the very limitations of human communication–it cannot be done. This may seem very cold, and it is in many ways. Is a social conscience valid? Certainly! It is just not the first priority in magic. That is what religion in its exoteric forms is for really, that and social order. All purely egoic–and the ego has its place as well–for the experience of the ego is part of something greater than itself. “Know Thyself” and “All is Vanity” to quote the Mystery School of Delphi, and the writer of the Biblical book of Proverbs. That the Havamal also states “seek to be middle ‘wise’, for more than this and you will not know happiness” (paraphrase as its not in front of me).
        True will, as used by the Thelemites is not in error, and is not original to Crowley. It was always the prime motif behind esoteric practice (and most religions in different ways and names). Identity is objectification as well, just going over the reply. Some things are not in the perview of neat explanation, nor are they less as a result.

        • http://northernrunesradio.com Daniel

          I stated in the very first comment that the question given was not the FIRST question a magician should ask him/herself. One who has not connected in some way to the universal mind is not a magician anyway hence the danger of “dabbling”.

          • TaylorEllwood

            Actually if you look at your original comment you stated it was the wrong question..

        • TaylorEllwood

          I think you and I will have to agree to disagree here. I don’t think of cultural, familial, genetic, race, or gender as being egoic constructs. They are factors of identity that a person deals with for the duration of life. How they deal with those factors is partially a function of ego, but goes much deeper than just that, especially as it relates to the various experiences and interactions a person has in life. Identity is always with you. You can’t escape it, no matter how much you might try.

  • MEVE

    I am a new to all this. I have not been practicing for a lot of years. From what a lot of Pagan / Wiccan groups is teaching out there…you practice first to improve yourself as a human being…and on the path of becoming a better person, you will have a better impact into your society, and so, improving your community through improving yourself. I don`t know what is your thoughts on this. How can one truly improve its community and society through its solitary practice?

    • TaylorEllwood

      Know thyself. I think it’s a relevant statement which informs spiritual development, but also development as it applies to social responsibility. As you know yourself, you also know what’s important to you and how you want to contribute to society.

      I’m also a solitary practitioner and have been since I first started practicing. I think you can truly contribute to your community and society, without having to belong to a group. It depends on figuring out what is important to you, in terms of causes, and then deciding on what actions you can take, magically and mundanely.

  • http://infamous.net/ Tom Swiss

    Hi Taylor. Interesting topic. Two things that pop into my head:

    1) On the “high magic” side, Ronald Hutton in The Triumph of the Moon talks about how medieval high, literate magic was meant to be invoked mostly for practical, selfish ends, and how it was 19th century groups like the Golden Dawn that turned this sort of magic towards spiritual development. (Which I think, ipso facto, includes giving a damn about other human beings and being socially responsible.)

    2) On the “low magic” side, Stanley Krippner makes the distinction between the shaman, a person recognized by the tribe to have access to extraordinary sources of knowledge and power and who uses them for the good of the tribe, and the sorcerer, who uses such knowledge and power for their own ends.

    (I understand “high magic” to mean literate, intellectual magic, magic with some scholarly component and often a connection to religious authority, and “low magic” to mean a more folk approach, perhaps with teaching through family lines or a master/apprentice relationship. I’m not sure that maps to thaumaturgy and theurgy, but I wouldn’t want to get hung up too much on the semantics. :-) )

    I like your oil spill example, and am reminded of an important Key to Magic that the Rev. Ivan Stang of the Church of the SubGenius once mentioned: Get Off Your Ass! If after the ritual folks go home and say, well, we had a ritual, we did our part…that’s not magic, or at least not very good magic. (I am assuming the ritual had no significant telekinetic effect, if someone out there has a group that can do remote plumbing I’ve love to meet them.) You have not effected change, and Uncle Aliester reminds us that “Magick is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.” If on the other hand the ritual leads to people Getting Off Their Ass and resolving to drive less or call their Congresscritter or doing something useful, however small, then we’re on to something.

  • Shauna Aura Knight

    I’m glad you are posting about this; it’s a topic I think is crucial, particularly for the Pagan and occult communities/subculture. Very often I see people following a path of trying to find/master magic and losing sight of why we should even bother. That is to say–I’m not against magic to improve one’s own personal life, but ultimately I believe that we are all a part of a larger ecosystem. In my own spirituality, I see no separation between my religion/spiritual beliefs and the way I work in the world. I try to improve myself, in order to help build a healthier and more sustainable community, in order to help build a healthier global community. And that includes social justice, community building, as well as ecological activism.

    Overall, I’m just not going to resonate with any magical system that is focused mostly on selfish ends. Sadly, many of the occultists and self-identified magicians that I meet are focused on just that–just what magic can do for them–vs. what it can do to make the world a better place. And perhaps there’s a bit of irony there since the root word for wizard, vizier, and perhaps even Druid and Witch is “wise one.” I think wisdom is when we crawl out of our own navels and see the impact that we have in the world and take responsibility for that impact.

    I look forward to more posts!

  • http://www.sablearadia.com/ Sable Aradia

    I see your point, but here’s a question: how do you know what sort of magick is in the best interests of the community? Let me give you a direct example. A few years ago there was a major drought in the Okanagan Valley and the forest fires in Kelowna made international news. So we in the community had a huge debate as to whether or not we should do magick for rain. Some believed that this was exactly what witches are for; others that messing with the weather is presumptuous, and who are we to think we know what’s best for the Earth and the climate? What would you have done?